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Microsoft Presents a Mass of Contradictions, as Usual, in New Phone Ads

Microsoft (MSFT)'s new $100 million campaign for its new Windows Phone 7 is -- as one might expect from a desktop company struggling with a mobile world -- a mass of contradictions. The campaign criticizes people who can't see what's going on around them because they're too busy texting and reading email -- in one scene a man ignores his wife when she emerges from the bathroom in thigh-highs and a silk slip -- but suggests that Microsoft's phone is even better at doing that stuff. Which would make things worse, no?

To be fair, its recent ads from ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky are a vast improvement on some of its old ones. But this is Microsoft, and you always get the feeling with their spots that there was a great idea in here somewhere that had a lot of compromises bolted onto it by several layers of management, all with the power to say no but not yes.

The stakes are high for the Windows Phone 7. Microsoft's last phone effort, the Kin, was ditched just weeks after it launched. There was a lot to learn from that launch: Microsoft in recent years has followed trends, not driven them; and the Kin's ads -- which were all about how it was a specialist phone for social media addicts -- tended to remind viewers of the advantages of the competition: Apple (AAPL)'s iPhone. Sure, it might be nice to have a phone specially made to handle Facebook and Twitter ... but not as nice as having a phone with apps that can do all that and a bag of chips.

Similarly, there was a great joke at the heart of Microsoft's Windows 7 launch campaign. Various geeks and nerds described their suggestions for improving the balky operating system, and in a flashback sequence those same nerds were represented in their minds' eyes by glamorous models. The best of the series featured "Jack," who sported a jewfro and called his mother when Microsoft adopted his idea for the "snap" folder function:

The joke was spoiled in later iterations when someone apparently demanded that the nerds be less nerdy. Crystal, the Brit in the back of the taxi, is a lot more appealing than her imaginary self, and French cafe dweller Charline is objectively more beautiful than her model, thus soundly defeating the cleverness of the original idea: Nerds with delusions big enough to tell Microsoft how to design its new operating system.

In the Windows Phone 7 campaign, we see more symptoms of Microsoft's inability to stick to the damn plan. Here's Microsoft's February 2010 mission statement for the Windows Phone 7. The spot bemoans how the phone biz has become:

... a sea of sameness and a focus on apps over the phone experience itself.
... so what do we do now? We start over.
Microsoft is the only company that could look at an iPhone and say, boy, that's terrible. We need to "start over"! Especially when Google (GOOG)'s Android system appears to prove there's a healthy business to be had imitating iPhone.

The February video ends with a woman who loves the convenience and simplicity of her Windows Phone 7 prototype so much that she walks down the street flipping through its screens, headphones on, oblivious to everything:

Fast forward to today, and what's the main theme of the campaign? That only idiots walk down the street so engaged in their phones that they're oblivious to everything. There is a good point to be made here about how just ridiculous life is becoming in smartphoneland. (I speak as a man who has missed a train stop because of a particularly crucial game of Bejeweled.) But Microsoft doesn't understand why this is so ridiculous: It's because its competitors' phones are so charming, so entertaining and so easy to use that people actually prefer screwing around with their phones to partaking in real life.

The Windows Phone 7 might well be a good phone. But the ads seem to be suggesting that they're not interesting enough to engage you, like all your friends with Androids and iPhones. Which is why the tagline makes no sense whatsoever:

It's time for a phone to save us from our phones.
As Rich Sullivan, CEO of Red Square Agency wrote on Ad Age:
Microsoft shouldn't have a problem designing a device that people want to spend time away from. I guess that's playing to your strength?